From the January 1991 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is easy to pretend that the beggars on the street are not really destitute and desperate. They are crafty kids on the make. They claim to be homeless, hut they are making huge fortunes sitting on their arses conning the vulnerable British public. No, there is no need to beg in Britain. This is a civilised country. It says so in the Sun. It says that beggars are earning £200 a day. They earn more than you do; the undeserving swines. The pretence goes on all the time. It is part of the self-delusion which sustains capitalism. But it is a huge delusion. There are homeless kids in Britain. There are thousands and thousands of them. And they will not go away by pretending that they are not really there.
According to the Independent (1 October), there are now 50.000 workers under the age of 25 in London who are homeless. Nationally, there are over 200,000 homeless youths. Many are housed in temporary hostels or cheap rented accommodation. Others sleep rough. They are the inhabitants of Cardboard City, the squalid emblem of revived Victorian values which can be seen any night of the week on the streets of central London.
Why are the inhabitants of Cardboard City out on the streets? In most cases they have left home under pressure, not by choice. Either it was too expensive for their parents to pay to keep them at home (especially with the notorious poll tax to be paid) or they were forced to leave because of violent or sexual abuse by parents. Capitalism celebrates the family, but for thousands of young workers family life is a story of intense poverty, humiliating parental oppression or hideous incest. They were free to stay at home, just like the mouse is free to snuggle up and keep warm in the cat’s basket.
Under this system the majority of young people are not free to leave the family home (if the family has one) and make a life for themselves. Out in the world the first task is to become a wage slave: to find a boss to exploit you. Some young workers leave home and enter the world of wage slavery; they are the "lucky" ones who are legally robbed and offered enough of a wage to keep themselves in food, clothing and shelter—just enough to leave them poor enough to have to go back and be robbed again the next week.
Most workers under 25 are on the lowest wages. The average worker under 21 earns only 60 percent of the wages of the average 21-35 year-old worker. In 1987 the average 16-17 year-old earned only 39 percent of the average wage. Many such workers, though employed, are too poor to afford a home. They must either rent accommodation (in a market where there is very little cheap rented accommodation, and where landlords are amongst the most unscrupulous and thieving capitalists) or else apply for council housing which is almost never available for the single person.
Those workers who cannot find a job are in a far worse position. If they cannot sell themselves to a boss who can make a profit out of them they are on the scrapheap. According to the 1977 Housing Act. from which the current legal definition of homelessness is derived, there is no legal right for anyone to be given a place to live. If you cannot afford the rent or mortgage for a home you can apply to the local council. but it is more than likely that they will completely ignore you—though some councils have been known to tell young girls who are homeless to go away and get themselves pregnant so as to win a priority place on the housing waiting list. How the profit system cherishes human life!
The 1985 Housing act stated that special priority must be given by councils to homeless people who are “vulnerable”. This excludes most homeless youths on the grounds that they have “chosen” to leave home and are therefore "intentionally homeless". Last year Thatcher was asked in the House of Commons what she expected these homeless youths to do: "Stand on your own two feet or go home to mother” was the reply from the Empress of Callousness.
The Housing Act of 1988 rubbed the faces of the young homeless further in the mud, as the Tories made it legal for their friends, the parasitical landlords, to charge "premiums” or “key money" as advance payment before a homeless person can rent a home. This was previously illegal.
So, the prospects for the young homeless worker are grim. The benefits system makes it grimmer still. Before the 1988 social security reforms were introduced it was possible for homeless youths to apply for state money to pay rent in advance. This is now abolished. Under the current law young workers may apply for a so-called "crisis loan”, only if they can prove that (a) they are destitute and (b) they will be able to repay the loan. It does not require genius to see that most claimants will fall down on one or other of the qualifications. In the absence of such a loan the young homeless workers are on their own. No money, no shelter, no hope. They can go on the game if they are female and marketable. So do many of the destitute lads who end up working as rent-boys for assorted vicars and moralising MPs. Or they can beg.
Unemployed, homeless youths have little prospect of finding a job: no address, no job—no wage, no address. They are out in the cold. At best, there is the chance of super-exploited, non-unionised casual labour—for some. The others have no chance.
The dangers of living alone in a strange city are fearful and life-threatening. The temptation to seek easy refuge in drink and drugs is not to be condemned by those whose system has created the problem. Weeks and months on the streets causes physical damage to the bodies of the homeless workers and lasting psychological distress. Even if capitalism was brought to an end tomorrow, this would leave tens of thousands of profoundly emotionally-damaged people whose lives as social rejects has wounded them no less than the casualties of capitalism's wars.
Many workers like to pretend that the homeless young workers do not exist. In helplessness or self-deception, they look the other way when they see them. The pernicious tabloid rags tell lies about these modern paupers, claiming that they are con-merchants on the make. And the law punishes them. The police use the 1824 Vagrancy Act to fine homeless kids who are caught begging. It is a punishable offence to be so poor that you are forced to beg from other poor people.
Pathetically, the reformists seek their limited solutions within the capitalist system. There is a Campaign to End the Vagrancy Act which boasts that it has abolished the Act in Scotland in 1982. Well-meaning people in CHAR (the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless) plead with the ruling class to offer a few pounds more to the unemployed, to build a few more council slums, to offer jobs for the poorest of the poor. None of this will solve the problem. In fact, if asked, those campaigning for these miserable little reforms will admit that the problem is further from being resolved now than when their campaigns began.
The problem of young workers who are homeless is only an extension of the problem of all workers who are too poor to live as well as society could allow us to live. For the truth is that we could all live in decent comfort and equality if only the madness of the profit system is cast aside and we begin to live without the social barriers of sale and profit.
In a world socialist society of production for need, where all goods and services would be available to all people on the simple basis of free access, the concept of begging would not exist. And children will ask how it was that once there were young men and women sleeping in cardboard boxes on cold and rainy nights, pleading for pennies from passers-by. They will, perhaps, pretend that this could never have been so. It was an illusion, surely, dreamed up by some awful creator of horror fantasies. Such forgetting is for the morrow; for now we have the Earth to take back from the thieves who have stolen it from us.